The Passion of Jesus the Galilean
One of the features of cults is that members are true to their own. Like-minded people, most of them religious, have been willing to die for their cause. Once empowered, they have been willing to kill for it.
In Just War and Jihad (2006) I remarked that the “lord God of hosts” was essentially a war God whose colours, arks, icons and effigies were paraded in battle. He has blood on his hands from years past until the present, inspired by sacred books and their anointed interpreters. There are no two ways about it. Religion is to violence as orange is to juice.
It isn’t true of course that secular cults will always behave as badly as religious cults have done, but the nationalist and populist movements that were provoked by the secular conscience, from the French Revolution through the Communist victories of 1949 in China, have been characterized by the collectivizing evil of like-mindedness and powerful men behaving badly.
It’s enough to make us think that real problem is Us, not It–not religion, not its opposites. If it is true we made God in our image, it is also true that what survives his death is the part of him that was always, essentially us.
The Bible is not his book. It is our book. And in historical terms, getting rid of him doesn’t mitigate the factors that went into the process that gave us a cruel, fickle, plague-happy, arrogant, and unbearable father whose laws would govern us until St Paul in a rare moment of perception said Enough.
He said this, by the way, not in his own name, but in the name of someone he claimed was the messiah and chosen one of God, sent to abrogate all previous covenants and arrangements, sent to forgive and not condemn, redeem and not to punish. Like the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is hard To Find,” Paul is that man who “wisht he’d a met Jesus,” because it “ain’t fair he wasn’t.”
“I wisht I had of been there…It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known.”
Lacking the advantage of the observers of Jesus’ teaching, Paul is free to create his own moral and theological universe.
Whatever else Paul was, he was the greatest revolutionary in history when it comes to the God-concept. His ideas were completely unhistorical and at odds with Jewish teaching: he finessed his disagreements into a cult that turned the vindictive God of his own tradition into a being capable of forgiveness. Needless to say, the way he arrives at this is angstful and tortured, but he gets there in the end–-not through tradition and law, but through a stratagem: ”Christ the Lord.” His turnabout from Judaism was so complete that his only intelligent interpreter, Marcion, believed he must have been speaking of a completely different God. As Harnack once remarked, “There was only one man in the second century who understood Paul, and he misunderstood him”.
Sad, it seems to me, that so much of the mythicist argument is based on what Paul does or doesn’t say about Jesus, considering there is a world of thought there that, cast to one side, makes it virtually impossible to know what Paul was talking about. Mythicism, among it many other dubious achievements, has achieved a new level of illiteracy in relation to Paul’s ideological and religious world.
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There will never be a cult of the historical Jesus. And I have made the claim that there never could have been a cult of the historical Jesus.
His “biographers” tell the story of a man who preached a kind of mock civil disobedience, but was as critical of Jewish legalism and ritualism as it was of Roman boots in Jerusalem. They tell us he gathered an unpromising following of women and yokels (Celsus’s words, not mine), failed to achieve whatever it is he wanted to achieve, and died among thieves as an enemy of the nation.
There is absolutely nothing improbable about this story. And there is also nothing unusual about the way it was improved, given the categories, archetypes, and models of hellenistic legend-making common to the period.
Emperors were divine. That’s what the historians and the coins tell us. They ascended into heaven as a matter of right and their effigies were worshiped centuries before the Christians thought it appropriate to erect an icon of their saviour.
One has to be committed to the view that Jesus was the son of God to think he was unusual. One has to be committed to the view that he cannot have been what the gospels say he is (and they say different things, not one thing) to deny his historical existence. Paul came very close to the edge in his theology. The gnostics went over it. Orthodoxy brought it back from the cliff, but at the expense of historical interest.
Both the believer and the Jesus-denier have to begin with his atypicality–his status as someone who stands outside the flow of human events. But the gospels locate him squarely within the flow of events.
For the believer, the case for Jesus is made on the basis of holding the gospels to be true in part and whole. For the critic, the “unbeliever,” the mythicist, the gospels are simply not telling the truth or so packed with lies that it is a waste of time sorting out the true from the false, the plausible and the perhaps.
Essentially, they allege the books are a fiction devised from fragments of misremembered stories, scraps from the floor of the Greek marketplace and the Jewish bazaar–the court of the gentiles. That there is no direct evidence this is the way the gospels developed, or that the stories cited at “sources” of the Jesus legend are, at best, literary allusions of the sort hellenistic writers and hellenized Jews were fond of making is unimportant and does not need to be acknowledged. Some especially adventurous souls have suggested that the only ”real” [sic] question is whether Jesus is 95% or 100% a fiction.
My own argument is a bit different. It does not begin with a sacred text but a religious artifact dating from the first century of the common era. It is a story about a man named Jesus the Nazarene who was a healer and magician, and who followed in the radical apocalypticism of someone named John the Baptist, fell out with his Jewish contemporaries over how the law should be interpreted, and was put out of business through a conspiracy between the pharisaic sect and a few law-and-order Roman officials who feared, more than anything else, another Palestinian revolt. I am not reading between any lines to see this in the gospels. This is the story at the most superficial of levels.
Devotees of the “dying and rising god” theory of Jesus like to point to the crucifixion as the centerpiece of their theory–after all, no dying Jesus, no rising god.
But history tells it differently. Appian tells us that when the slave rebellion of Spartacus was crushed (71 BCE), the Roman general Crassus had six thousand slave prisoners crucified along a stretch of the Appian Way, the main road leading into Rome (Bella Civilia 1:120). As an example of crucifying rebellious foreigners, Josephus says that when the Romans were besieging Jerusalem in 70 A.D. the Roman general Titus crucified five hundred Jews in a day. In fact, so many Jews were crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem that “there was not enough room for the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies” (Wars of the Jews 5:11.1).
History has singled Jesus out of this crowd for other reasons, but crucifixion was so common a punishment for slaves, rebels with various causes, and common criminals that Valerius Maximus scoffs at is as “a slave’s punishment” (servile supplicium; 2:7.12), an epithet Paul arguably puns on in calling himself a “slave for Christ” after insisting that his preaching is all about a crucified messiah (1 Cor. 2.2).
I am happy to listen to details about how the gospel writers get details of the crucifixion wrong, or how the trials of Hercules are the model for the death of Jesus, but frankly, I have no desire to read fantasy when history will do and when the sources I am reading can easily be situated in the time-frame from which they come.
In arguing that Jesus is plausible, I am simply saying that the undecorated preacher of rebellion against the enemies of God and the corruption of the temple cult was transformed into the decorated embodiment of the power of God against the power of sin, mostly through the work of one man–Paul–who knew a few stories about Jesus but had never met him in the flesh.
It is not clear to me entirely why Paul does what he does to achieve this, but two things are pretty clear: the transformation is not carried out in the earliest identifiable stratum of the gospels. When a bit later the gospels also show shades of collaborating in this transformation, especially through legendary additions, it is because Christians have had to confront the reality of failing in their original mission. In redefining themselves, they redefined their “saviour,” but in ways so incoherent that it becomes almost impossible to know what ideas might adhere to the historical individual who put it all in motion.
Thus begins a process that has defined the growth of Christianity from their day to our own time.
It is not accidental that the defining moment for this transformation from the historical to the mystical is the crucifixion–-not the resurrection, which achieves its centrality through Paul’s growing sense of its popularity with crowds, not through the gospels’ almost passive inclusion of the tale at the end of the passion narrative.
The crucifixion is central to the gospel, not just narratively but psychologically, because it was the moment of crisis for the Jesus believers. It represents that moment when their history might have ended but did not; when Jesus’ reputation for apostasy and dangerous politics caught up with him, and would have caught up with them if they had continued to preach what he preached. Somewhat hypogeally, the gospels present this outcome in stories about the desertion of the eleven and the death of Judas, the betrayer.
So, they did with him what one normally did with a dead emperor. He lives on; his genius is immortal; he lives with the gods in heaven. His failure is his triumph. Death could not hold him.
Thanks to the rapid development of Christian theology after Paul the message about him became so familiar that even Romans could accept it. The course of Christology from the second to the fourth century is the biography of the Christus Victor, the one who overcame death, and finally of Christos Pantokrator, the one who rules the universe like the sun the sky.
This imperial image completely supersedes the historical as a category we can understand, because it has sent Jesus to live as the king of kings for all eternity. From now on, we will even set our calendars by the “date” of his birth.
It is possible to read this later development back into the gospels, but not easily and not very successfully. It was only possible for this transformation to complete itself because by the fourth century these texts were already considered sacred and, in any event, no ordinary Christians could read them.
Even if they had, they would scarcely have cared about a first century Jewish dissident who died at the beginning of his career.